On the first day of the spring semester, my second year teaching, I saw my first violent fight. It was an unusual fight in that it was unprompted by the prologue of, “Son, son…” and muscular chests popping out like proud roosters while necks reached forward to beckon the first punch. Instead, Dennis got up to throw some candy wrappers in the trash and did not return to his seat. He walked down the aisle of desks closest to the wall of the classroom and Vincent stood up. No words were exchanged and a “POP!” exploded as Dennis broke Vincent’s nose with one precise hit. From there, rage ensued. They punched, wrestled, and grunted as they knocked over books, desks, and other students moved out of their way. Blood sprayed from Vincent’s nose all over my classroom. All I heard was the hard smack of fists colliding with muscle and bone. I could not register what was happening.
I stood there—for what seemed an eternity but must have been only a few seconds—paralyzed. And then I snapped to and called security.
Security arrived, the young men were escorted out, and since a good quarter of my room was covered in blood the principal released the class to the cafeteria. I tried, desperately, to keep my composure as the students filed out, but as the last students walked by, smiling, chatty, and pumped up from the fight, I began to cry.
The next day the students were back, and they wanted to talk about my tears. They interrogated me with questions, “Miss, you were cryin’! Haven’t you ever seen a fight before?” They laughed as I confessed that no, I had never seen a fight like that except in the movies. They were shocked that I had never been in a literal fight and that blood, violence, and fighting had never been a part of my life. They looked at me as if I were from another planet, and, in some ways, compared to them, I was. I was from the planet of White suburbia. They were from the planet of inner city living.
This was the first time the students and I openly discussed our differences.
I tried to explain my tears to them. “Look guys,” I said. “You think it’s no big deal. You think you can break someone’s nose and it’s over. But it sets a precedent. A nose break this year, a stabbing next year, and the year after that a shooting in school. You guys will be graduated and gone, but I will be here. And you will have laid the foundation for violence in this building.”
They insisted that I was wrong. “No, Miss, that’s not going to happen. That stuff—stabbing, guns—that’s what we deal with every day on the streets. We don’t want that in school. Nah, that ain’t gonna happen. Mark our words. It will not happen.”
I must admit, I didn’t believe them. Not at all.
But they were right.
I taught the same students the following year as seniors when “Bowling for Columbine” came out. I took all of my Books to Film seniors to see it and they were moved. They cried while the security footage from Columbine was shown, they laughed at the Chris Rock scene about the cost of a bullet, and, only one year after 9/11, we all got the chills at the Twin Towers footage. We left full of ideas that were discussed in class the next day.
Again, one year later, they reiterated the same unspoken code to me. They explained that the Columbine kids didn’t live their lives—the lives of the streets—therefore they didn’t draw that line between school and home. The Columbine students glamourized violence because violence wasn’t daily survival to them. They argued that a student from our school would never shoot up the building. That a gun would never be brought to school for the sake of using it within the school walls. That guns and violence were a part of their home lives and that they came to school to get away from that. That school was their sacred space. These statements came from a chorus of students—boys, girls, gang members, straight A students, all races—they concurred that you keep the street in the street. The end. Amen.
I received this message—the same message—every year of my career.
I have hesitated to write this for years, afraid that I would jinx their claims and that my words on a page would somehow trigger a mass school shooting in an urban school filled with inner city kids. But I believe them now. Compared to their home lives in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America, school is safe. It is their haven. They don’t want to mess with that.
But my students were wrong, too.
School is sacred to others, too, which is why they choose to violate school buildings and students of all ages—from elementary schools to colleges—with violence. It is the setting of the school and the killing of teachers and learners that makes their act so insidious.
Because as much as schools and teachers have been vilified in the past years, our society still believes—deep down—in the sanctity of the school building, the promise of an education, the belief that school is where you start your life, the power of teachers, and that school is a safe space. It is the ultimate place to carry out an act of terror because it symbolizes the deepest elements of what is still good in our society. It symbolizes beginnings. It symbolizes a future. It symbolizes our dreams.
Many all over the world fight for the ability to go to school in a safe space. For many it’s only a dream. We have taken it for granted. It’s time we fight to protect our schools, teachers, and students. Until we do, schools will continue to be the main target for domestic terrorism.
Because schools are our sacred spaces.
[Also published in The Huffington Post here.]